An Uncertain Future for a Neighborhood Jewel

| 22 Sep 2015 | 12:41

Forty years ago, a trio of stone-strewn but otherwise vacant lots on West 105th near Columbus Avenue were an apt metaphor for a distressed city on the brink of bankruptcy.

One by one, the city foreclosed on the 17-foot by 100-foot lots and, in late 1977, ordered the middle lot’s sale at public auction. Two young couples living in the neighborhood — Douglas and Elizabeth Kellner and Lizabeth Roberts and her soon-to-be husband, Martin Sostre — together placed a bid on the lot.

“We got it for $500,” Elizabeth Kellner said.

Neither couple had plans for the Manhattan Valley lot and, with real estate taxes of about $200 a year, they could afford to let it lie fallow.

The two lots on either side of the Kellners’ and Sostres’, 76 and 80 West 105th, would eventually be transferred to the Trust for Public Land and the Parks and Recreation Department, respectively.

In 1992, the couples were approached by a group of residents who thought the three adjacent lots would be a near ideal spot for a garden.

“We gave them permission,” Kellner said.

From a space totaling 50 feet by 100 feet, residents lugged out trash and bricks and hauled in tons of earth, consulted with a garden designer and welcomed anyone who could lend a hand or expertise. They christened their collective plot La Perla, after a tough and troubled neighborhood abutting Old San Juan in Puerto Rico.

Within a neighborhood where gunshots were a near-nightly occurrence and drug dealers plied their trade on nearby corners, hardy shrubs and trees, lilacs, lilies and peonies took root.

Painted murals adorn nearby walls. A 1,000 gallon water tank in La Perla’s southeast corner gathers enough rainwater to supply nearly all the gardeners need. This year, an elaborate composting station was assembled.

For more than 20 years, residents have cultivated ivy, lilac and irises; picked peaches, figs, and plums; and reaped tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, basil and thyme from 30 plots. “The majority of people like to grow what they can eat,” said Elizabeth Hall, who has lived on Columbus near 106th Street since 1992 and has been gardening at La Perla for about 10 years.

But this fall’s bounty could mark the last harvest for some.

“The taxes on the lot are now $15,000 a year,” Elizabeth Kellner said last week. “We decided we need to sell the lot.”

The Kellners are now in their mid-60s and Lizabeth Sostre is in her 70s. Her husband died earlier this year.

“We want to resolve this situation for the sake of our children,” Kellner said.

A sale of the property, which is assessed at about $350,000, would very likely mean that a residential development would be built atop what are now a dozen fecund four-foot by eight-foot raised beds of earth and abundance.

For Hall, the sale and consequent disruption of what she and others consider a neighborhood jewel would be a significant loss for the gardeners, certainly, but also for nearby residents who use the garden as an oasis of sorts.

“I’m seconds from the insanity on Columbus Avenue,” she said on a recent afternoon among pear, plum and peach trees casting mid-afternoon shade and yielding the last of their summer fruits. “It’s sort of a primal thing for me.”

For $20 in annual dues, residents can lease a plot and plant just about anything that grow roots. “I call it the best real estate deal in town,” said Robert Pollard, who oversees the garden’s compost station. Just about anyone who wants a plot eventually gets one, he said.

“We manage, we get by. We connect with people we wouldn’t have met otherwise,” he said.

Kellner, who, like her husband, is a lawyer with a four-decade history of civic involvement in the Upper West Side, said she, her husband and Sostre are amenable to a land swap. If worked out with either the Land Trust or the Parks Department, such an arrangement would allow the garden to continue on two adjacent lots rather than be split in two.“We would be very open to that,” Kellner said.

The president of the Land Trust, Genevieve Outlaw, said relations with the Kellners and the Sostres have been cordial. But although she understood the impetus for selling the property, she called the decision “pretty devastating” for the gardeners. She said she would broach the idea of a land swap to the trust’s 12-member board next month. A Parks Department spokesperson said the department is aware of the discussion and is looking into how it might help keep the garden as intact as possible.

Meanwhile, on a verdant patch in Manhattan Valley, a loose-knit crew continues to cultivate a treasure. In a neighborhood that continues to have its shares of hardship and episodic violence, La Perla is a refuge and a symbol of resolve

“It brought neighbors together,” said Crystal Smith, one of La Perla’s original members. “It was something that said ‘we’ve come a long way.’”